Tolkien on HBO

I resisted watching this, because I was afraid that the film had turned the story of Tolkien’s life into yet another costume romance for, and about, twenty-somethings set in all the usual sorts of glamorous British settings. In fact, it is that, and it requires that we re-imagine the quintessential white-haired and tweedy Oxford professor as a studly (but already tweedy) young man playable by Nicholas Hoult. But it turned out to be more.

There can be no doubt that Tolkien’s early friendships, and the loss of so many of those friends in World War I, are to be found between the lines of The Lord of the Rings. This screenplay gets a bit deeper into the texts than I expected, and it spends just enough time on philology — and in those photogenic Oxford libraries — to shed light on the lifelong scholarship that underpins Tolkien’s stories. Derek Jacobi as the linguist Joseph Wright — whose life story is just as interesting as Tolkien’s — ought to lead to a reprint of Wright’s 1910 Grammar of the Gothic Language. (I’d buy it.) Twenty-somethings could learn a lot from this film about the history of the English language, and why that history is worth caring about.

An obnoxious blogger who calls himself “the Imaginative Conservative” wrote last year: “I expressed my fears and misgivings about the new film, Tolkien, which focuses on the writer’s youth. I was concerned that the film would convey a homosexual and anti-Catholic agenda, weaving a fabric of lies of which Wormtongue himself would be proud. I cited the track record of the two screenwriters, David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford, and predicted the worst.”

But, after seeing the film, he wrote: “The homosexual agenda is inserted incognito in the characterization of Tolkien’s friend, Geoffrey Bache Smith, but in such a subtle manner that only the cognoscenti will notice it.”

Such is the conservative mind. I’d put it differently. The screenwriters encrypted — and in a historically accurate way — the other romance in the film so that it would go right over the heads of conservative churchlings. To everyone else, it should be very clear. There is in fact a good bit of scholarship supporting the possibility that Geoffrey Bache Smith was in love with Tolkien. Smith died during the war at the age of 22. Tolkien later published a volume of Smith’s poems. In the last scenes of the film, Tolkien is meeting with Smith’s mother. “I never knew Geoffrey,” she says. “Was he happy? Please. Tell me. Did he know love?” Hoult looks at her, and the camera searches his face. But he doesn’t answer.

Hence I upgrade this film’s grade from a C to an A. It’s quite an achievement when the subtext of a story can quietly hold its own against the text, while as a bonus bringing the roots of the English language to our attention.

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